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Islam’s Got Talent: TV, performativity and the Muslim social imaginary

November 4, 2013

Bart Barendregt and Chris Hudson, “Islam’s Got Talent: Television, Performativity and the Muslim Social Imaginary”. Paper to the Consumption, Lifestyle and Asian Modernities Symposium, RMIT Melbourne, 4 – 6 November 2013.

Respondents: John Postill and Crystal Abidin

Response notes (J. Postill):

1. Mediating the local and the global

p.2 Aims of paper:

[A] To examine how Islamic performance in Malaysian TV idol formats ‘might constitute a space for understanding competing imaginaries’…

[B] … and ‘might create the capacity to imagine the engagement of the local with the global’

Empirical materials: p. 5 ‘Two cases where modern Islamic identities are performed in a mediated space’, i.e. (a) 2005, young man of humble origins who became likely but ‘unlikely’ Akademia Fantasia star, (b) 10 young men competing to become imams.

Theoretical inspiration:

  • Butler’s performativity theory (1993, 1999). Identity = a ‘performative accomplishment’ through the ‘stylised repetition of acts’ –> embodied Islamic practices e.g. praying, fasting, reciting. Identities are always fluid, flexible, blurred, changing. Performance = ‘an individual moment of theatricality’.
  • Taylor’s social imaginary –> Muslim social imaginary in Malaysia and rest of SE Asia. A shared imaginary ‘makes possible common practices’.
  • Appadurai’s imagination and constitution of selves.

2. Malay modernity and the social imaginary

Media plays an important role in creating modern Muslim social imaginary in Malaysia and elsewhere. Emergence of Malay middle classes not the same as secularisation; instead, Islamisation.

Ong: Malaysian peculiarity: combination of Islamic nationalism and modernity.

3. The real Idol?

Question is: How do these TV formats create modern Islamic selves and social imaginaries? How does the Butler concept of performance help us understand this process?

At first the idol format rejected by Islamists for its idolatry (long history in Islam [see Goody 1997]) and Western origin. But over time some enterprising, media savvy Muslims found ways of adapting it. Had own TV programmes, motivational books and other media materials – own ’empires’.

4. From Felda to the world

2005, young man of humble origins who became likely but unlikely Akademia Fantasia star.

… whilst retaining pious rural boy image; but at centre of moral anxieties about genre, almost as if charged with upholding Muslim values; personal life intensely scrutinised, e.g. break-up with also pious girlfriend.

5. Becoming a young imam

10 young men competing to become imams.

One problem is that even though no ordained clergy in Islam, generally seen as too young to be religious leaders. This example shows possibilities and constraints of new format. Adapting Butler’s performance theory, these men are performing:

a. modernity (e.g. must be media savvy, cannot afford to ignore wishes of Muslim audiences).

b. normativity (as understood by UMNO-led government, e.g. don’t be a competitive competitor, OK to lose no need to be sad)

c. global (Malaysia positioned at the centre [and forefront?] of Muslim world).

6. Conclusion – competing imaginaries?

Let us not forget long history of Muslim entertainment going back in M’sia to 1961, international Quran recital competitions.

Things are changing, e.g. new TV stations closer to Islamists than to ruling UMNO party; or see PAS (Islamist party) sympathies of some contestants.

And what about non-Muslims in all of this?

Discussant’s questions and comments (J. Postill)

1. The paper’s main strengths:

– Very interesting, well chosen case studies of a global format and its appropriation/re-elaboration within a particular national context (Malaysia); they show how contestants have to navigate emergent cultural space riddled with contradictions, not least an idol format within a religion with strong iconoclastic past; genre that tries to appeal to audiences whilst not offending the various Malay Muslim constituencies across the gov/nongov divide.

– Especially interesting the emergence of new mediators or media savvy religious entrepreneurs; I was reminded of earlier work on new media in Muslim world (Eickelman and Anderson, see my book review), and more recently in a UK Christianity context paper on ‘Religious Digital Creatives’ (RDCs), i.e. ‘technology innovators and entrepreneurs whose development of online resources or social media for religious users grants them unique status within their religious communities’, see paper by Heidi A Campbell ‘Digital Creatives as New Cultural Authorities’ to AoIR conference, Salford (UK) in 2013.

2. How well accomplished aims, namely:

[A] To examine how Islamic performance in Malaysian TV idol formats ‘might constitute a space for understanding competing imaginaries’…

I’m not too clear about this. It seems to me that the materials presented suggest more hybridisation of imaginaries (esp. modern and Muslim) than competing imaginaries.

[B] … and ‘might create the capacity to imagine the engagement of the local with the global’

Not too clear here either, perhaps I don’t understand the formulation. Who’s doing the engaging? How? When? Why? Is ‘the local’ an agent that ‘engages’ with ‘the global’? The similar idea that performance is ‘the point where the local may imagine its relationship with the global’ is also hard to grasp.

3. What could be improved:

– Needs to have a main argument (thesis) spelled out as well as an explicit claim to originality – what twist does this paper add to existing theories of mediated identity, performance, modern religiosity?

– Relationship between social imaginaries and practices remains unclear, we get sense of practices as deriving from an abstract social imaginary; where does the imaginary reside? What is it, in fact?do they constitute one another? in what ways? how does that happen ‘in practice’ in the TV programmes studied?

– I am no expert, but hasn’t performance theory made any advances since Butler’s 1990s work? Any other theorists worth bringing in? What about authors’ own take on performance theory?

– We don’t learn much about the audiences, what they make of these formats? This could, of course, be a separate study, but some reference to audiences would strengthen the paper, at least to explain why not included in this particular paper.

4. Further questions and comments:

– Is identity really always fluid, changing, blurred? For instance, a Malay Muslim cannot choose to abandon the faith – he/she would be in a lot of trouble with the authorities. What’s the relation between the repetition of acts that leads to stabilised identities and this idea about their fluidity?

– Research upon this paper is based? Mostly online or on-the-ground as well, e.g. interviews, participant observation, etc?

– More context on recent history of Malaysia would help reader and analysis – struggle between UMNO and PAS, for instance, or how UMNO (Muslim component of ruling coalition since independence in 1957) learned to Islamise whilst struggling to keep more radical Muslim tendencies in check over the decades.

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